Earth Day in the time of COVID-19 is more urgent than ever. This crisis has made the 50th Earth Day a profound reminder that our mission is not only about the world, but about all the people in it.
So let’s honor it by pledging to help everyone, especially those who have suffered the most.
Now is the time to commit to cleaning up the air pollution that causes conditions like heart and lung disease and increased asthma attacks, all of which put people at higher risk for severe illness from the coronavirus.
The painful truth we face about public health
As this disease runs its unjust course through our nation, we should join with those who have been fighting discrimination for decades in an effort to bring us closer to the society we hope to be.
Though the pathogen doesn’t discriminate, our public health outcomes always have, because of unequal exposure to pollution and unequal access to treatment.
In this case, the result is a significantly disproportionate rate of COVID-19 hospitalization and death among African-American, Latino and immigrant communities in dense urban areas.
In Harris County, Texas, for example, 40% of those who have died so far from COVID-19 were black, though black people account for only 20% of the county’s population.
And in Louisiana more than 60% of the deaths are in the black community, which makes up 32% of the total population.
As the longtime leader of a U.S.-based environmental group, I can’t claim any of this is surprising. That makes it more painful.
In these neighborhoods, just breathing can make you sick
Outdoor air pollution kills more than 4 million people around the world each year. We have known for decades that in neighborhoods where the air is most polluted, just breathing damages the human body, causing cancer, heart disease and lung disease, including asthma.
This year we added yet another killer to that awful list. Of course, air pollution varies from place to place. Communities of color and low-income communities are more likely to be situated near power plants, refineries, ports, highways and other sources.
And according to preliminary analysis by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, areas with high air pollution levels before this crisis reported higher COVID-19 death rates.
Doing more to address the inequities
It is an understatement to say that, as a nation, we have not done enough to address these inequities. And given the systemic nature of the challenge we face, it will take more than environmental progress to improve these outcomes.
But I know where I can start, which is by being clear that my group, Environmental Defense Fund, has not done enough. So we are working to change that.
At EDF we recognized later than we should have that our focus on global climate change had led us to spend too little time addressing air pollution in local communities.
Over the past six years, we have started to improve on that, working with community groups that have long been fighting this battle. We are learning from them as we go forward.
EDF is now making the reduction of disproportionate health impacts from pollution a priority, beginning in our health-related science and advocacy, and expanding into our energy and climate work.
We’re working to address exposures to toxic chemicals in the workplace, the home and in neighborhoods near industrial facilities. We’re working with local organizations that are helping us understand these issues and seeking to weave what we learn into other aspects of our programmatic work.
Industrial pollution is not the only scourge putting communities at risk. Changes in weather due to climate change are making wildfires much worse — pouring more pollution into the air — and are also making low-lying areas more vulnerable to flooding.
When rising waters swamp industrial facilities, the result is often a toxic soup of hazardous chemicals. In many instances these chemical releases are not measured by local or federal officials, so groups like EDF, led by partners on the ground, have taken on the task.
How the Trump administration is taking us backward
The Trump administration and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler are pushing policies that will make these problems worse.
The administration is taking us backward on mercury pollution, air pollution from transportation, and in other critical areas.
“That’s a death sentence for us,” Hilton Kelley, a leading figure for environmental justice along the Texas coast, told the Associated Press. “But when you’re inundated day after day … we’re dead. We’re dead.”
What our goal should be for the world
And that as we move from relief to recovery, we do so in a way that rebuilds in ways that address the underlying disparities in these communities — beginning with the air we breathe.
Our country needs to take action to accelerate electrification of cars, trucks and buses to protect communities adjacent to busy roads and highways. We need to strengthen and enforce tight air pollution standards that protect all communities.
And philanthropists need to provide groups on the front lines with the resources they need to advocate for their own interests.
Our goal should not be restoration of the world as we know it, but the creation of a better world where the air is cleaner and communities are healthier and more resilient than before.
On the 50th Earth Day, that should not be too much to hope for.
Act when it matters most